Rumination refers to a mental state in which we repetitively dwell on negative thoughts, past mistakes, memories, problems, or other unpleasant mental content. It is a process that contributes to a wide range of psychological suffering and a core ingredient of mood and anxiety disorders. Rumination can be distinguished from a problem-solving process or emotional processing by the fact that it is a state of stuckness that does not lead to either potentially useful action steps one can engage in or the resolution of emotional pain. Most often, rumination simply increases emotional pain and contributes to further emotional and behavioural challenges.
Three essential strategies for reducing rumination:
1. Don't ruminate when you can problem solve
We often engage in rumination following something not going the way we wanted it to go (for example a mistake at work/school, a social mishap, or our failure to follow through with a commitment). Yet, rumination rarely improves how we feel or our future chances of things going 'better'. Problem-solving on the other hand can. How can you differentiate rumination from problem solving? If you've been over the same thoughts and ideas again and again for more than 5 minutes, chances are you're ruminating! Problem-solving leads to an end-point - some sort of action that can be taken - whereas rumination just goes in circles!
2. Don't problem solve when there's no problem to be solved
Sometimes, there's no clear problem to be solved or no solution to a problem that can be identified. Or, maybe you've already tried some problem solving and decided to move on, but find your mind continuing to be pulled into ruminative thinking.
In these cases, labelling your thought process as rumination and continuously re-directing your attention to something more useful or enjoyable to you is likely to be most helpful. Keep in mind that redirecting is not exactly the same thing as ignoring. Ignoring is about pushing away what you don't want to think about (i.e. internal thoughts) - which paradoxically usually increases unwanted thoughts - whereas redirecting is about moving towards what you do want to engage in (i.e. external actions) while letting your mind continue to do its thing in the background. Rumination is more of a problem of mental attention (i.e. DWELLING on negative thoughts) rather than mental content (i.e. HAVING negative thoughts) so moving your attention elsewhere can help end the ruminative process.
3. Challenge your thinking and show rumination the door
No one likes ruminating. At the same time, there is usually a reason why some part of your brain thinks ruminating is a wise course of action. Maybe a part of you feels like you need to figure things out so you never make a mistake again. Or, maybe, a part of you thinks you deserve to feel down and is not ready for you to 'move on.' It can be quite useful to try and get a sense of why your mind thinks you need to be ruminating. Ask yourself: why am I ruminating right now? What feared outcome do I hope this will prevent or what past action do I want to change? Am I trying to punish myself and if so what do I hope this will accomplish? Once you get a sense of what rumination is purporting to do for you, you can challenge the utility of this process. Will rumination actually help you change the past and prevent bad things from happening again? Will punishing yourself truly rectify any past mistakes or lead to future 'better' actions? (Spoiler alert: it almost always results in worse behaviour in the future.) Challenging the utility of rumination can help you begin to let go of it as a strategy and instead move on to whatever is most helpful, whether it is problem-solving, mental re-direction, or self-compassion.